Dead Horse Ranch State Park offers lush riverfront scenery, fishing, trails, birdwatching, and more

By Joanna Dodder Nellans

You won’t find any expired equines at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, but the riverfront scenery is just as memorable as the unusual name.

The Ireys family required the state to keep the ranch name when they sold it in 1973. The family chose the moniker after touring several Verde Valley properties in the 1940s. Calvin “Cap” Ireys asked his kids which place they wanted to buy and they replied, “The one with the dead horse.” He bought the place in 1950 and the name stuck.

Today, the ranch looks a bit different but retains its rare riparian beauty. It spreads out along the Verde River just across the waterway from Cottonwood’s Riverfront Park. Three lagoons keep fresh with river water via the 1870s-era Hickey Ditch water rights that came with the park. A park store, ramadas, playground, restrooms, campsites, and cabins are connected by a system of trails that links to neighboring federal and state lands. Visitors enjoy fishing, swimming, hiking, bird watching, and horseback riding; an on-site riding concessionaire makes the latter easy for everyone.

“April and May are some of the nicest temperatures of the year,” Senior Park Ranger Jennifer Steffen related.

Temps reach average highs of 77 and 85 degrees, respectively, with average lows of 42 and 49. The great weather (and schools’ spring breaks) make this a popular time of year for park visitors. Wildflowers start popping and songbirds are migrating through. The Friends of the Verde River also hosts its annual Family Fun Day here on Saturday, April 29, as part of the Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival. The Family Fun Day includes vendors alongside live bird and reptile displays.

Twenty miles of non-motorized park trails weave through a variety of Verde Valley vegetation zones. Jennifer’s favorite is the short Hickey Ditch Trail, which is shaded from the summer sun by a canopy of willow, net leaf hackberry, Arizona black walnut, and mesquite trees. The less-shaded 15-mile Lime Kiln Trail extends from the park all the way to Red Rock State Park at Sedona, making it a popular bicycle route.

The park’s three lagoons are popular with anglers since the Arizona Game and Fish Department stocks them with rainbow trout during the winter and catfish during the summer. Largemouth bass, sunfish, and bluegill also inhabit the lagoons. It’s no surprise that bald eagles and otters love to fish for dinner there too.

If your fishing venture comes up short, no worries. It’s a short walk on the Jail Trail to the charming Old Town Cottonwood featuring plenty of restaurants and wine-tasting rooms.

The store offers fishing supplies and bait, local trail and field guides, snacks – and of course park swag featuring a horse skull.

If you go...
  • What: Dead Horse Ranch State Park.
  • Where: on the north side of Cottonwood. From North Main Street (Old Highway 89A) in Cottonwood, turn north on North 10th St. and follow it through Riverfront Park and over the river bridge to the state park.
  • When: open all year. Day-use hours are generally dawn to dusk.
  • How much: $7/vehicle (up to 4 adults) and $3/bicycle or pedestrian.
  • For more information: see the park’s website at for a wealth of park information and maps.